A Summer Hike in Mid-February

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Yes, you read it right....I went on a Summer hike in the middle of February!  For those of you not familiar with North Carolina, allow me to clarify.  If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes.  It has been an odd Winter to be sure.  It has been a lot milder than normal, yet we had a pretty deep snow in the middle several days below freezing.  This weekend has been getting progressively warmer, which has brought on the affliction of "Spring Fever."  Wanting to get outside and go for a hike, I was looking forward to the warm temperatures, and was getting rather excited about the clouds that were forecasted for the general area.

There have been a couple of things that I have wanted to do here lately.  One of which has been working with my 10-Stop ND filter for some daytime long exposure photography.  I have tinkered with this a couple of times now, but nothing like what I want to do with it.  The other thing is a technique that I have never even tried before.  This would be stitching together two or more images to make a panorama.  I have always loved the idea, but the computer end of it was a little too technical for my brain.  Now that I'm working with Lightroom, the stitching process is quite easy, and I wanted to give it a try.  However, I had not come across the right scene for a panorama, mainly since I don't usually "see" in that format.

The best place for me to work on both of those techniques was Stone Mountain.  I can find some of the most interesting vistas there with the many balds that are scattered around the park.  There are several different trails that go to the high points of the park, and that gave me lots of options to take advantage of the clouds I was expecting.

My morning started out rather early, but I stayed in bed for an extra 30 minutes past my 5am alarm.  I'm not complaining at all!  I had checked the weather, and the cloud forecast was much thicker than I had expected with a forecasted 100% coverage.  This meant that there would be no real chance for a sunrise, and I didn't need to stress getting to the park right when the gates opened this time.

When I left the house at 6:15, I looked up and saw stars and the moon.  Well, that is a little funny looking for a totally cloudy sky.  I was already in motion, and I figured I would go to Stone Mountain as was my original plan.  Hey, I might get some patches of blue in my sky...that is, if the clouds actually did arrive.  The entire trip to the park was filled with clear skies.  I could see some distant clouds over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but they were much too far away for me to benefit from them.  I was starting to work on alternate plans for my Trek since it was not looking like I was going to get what I wanted on the upper trails.

At least there wasn't anyone else in the park when I arrived.  That is always a nice thing to have the area to myself.  This also marks the first "real" Trek that I have done in my new 4Runner.  Other than a quick after work trip to Pilot Mountain, this is the first dedicated trip I've made in this truck.  It worked out great for transporting my equipment, and I have no doubt that when it comes time to leave the paved roads it will do even better for me.  I've still got a few things to do to it, but it is mostly ready to be put into service as the photo expedition vehicle.

But I digress...Let's revisit the current situation.  The sky was mostly clear, but there were some clouds starting to move in.  That was promising and motivated me to continue on with my original plan of hiking the upper trails around Wolf Rock, Cedar Rock, and Blackjack Ridge.  The air was slightly crisp, and was about 51 degrees when I started out.  I was comfortable in my long pants, and I hoped that they wouldn't be too much later in the day.  I got to Wolf Rock in about 20 minutes or so and set out looking for some compositions.

Nothing was hitting me today at this location.  Normally, I can find all sorts of things to photograph, but I just wasn't feeling it because of the lighting and the locations of the clouds.  I chose to give this spot up, and return later in the afternoon with the sun in a different position.  It was back to the trail I went, and Cedar Rock was my next stopping point.  I was just hoping that I had better luck there!

The clouds were not doing me any favors, but at least the lighting was decent.  I had wished the light was situated so that I could shoot out over the mountains, but without clouds, I was at the mercy of the sun.  At least Stone Mountain has some wonderful erosion paths worn into the granite surface.  With the low sun, I decided to work these leading lines with hopes that the clouds would soon arrive.

Uphill Battle
Just when I was about to give up on the clouds, I saw a bank of them starting to move across the tree tops.  I flipped the camera over to fully take advantage of the visual interest in the sky.  The leading lines that I was working made for a perfect foreground interest.  I was using my 70-200mm lens which was doing an excellent job at compressing the image and keeping the background to an appropriate scale.  Since I had my intensifying polarizer attached, I was unable to use my lens hood.  This meant that I had to use that well worn boonie hat that I've had for about 10 years now to shield the lens from the intense sun directly to my right side.  This is one of the reasons I always wear this hat when shooting landscapes, and it has earned its place in my tool box because of it.

Bleak Existence
I worked my way around the landscape and found one view that I have worked before.  Just on the other side of the tree line is where I normally go, but today, I was feeling a little froggy and decided that I would step back and go with a different approach.  I swapped out my lens for the 24-70mm, and fitted it with a polarizer as well as a 2-Stop ND grad to control the sky.  This picture represents about 30 minutes of work.  The clouds were starting to come in, but those same clouds were blocking the sun.  I was having to wait for the clouds to break and let the sun shine through, while the clouds were still over the mountain.  This is probably the most frustrating part of photography, but also one of the most rewarding when it works out.  This time, it actually did work out, and I got the shot I was after.  The barren foreground worked much better than I had anticipated, and provided a great visual balance with the distant Stone Mountain.

Bleak Existence in B&W
When I got home, I looked at this photograph with a slightly different eye.  I was really enjoying the textures, and the sky was quite interesting.  It just screamed to be rendered as a black and white.  With a quick conversion, and some fine tuning, I was really quite happy with the monochrome look for this picture.  Everything that I enjoyed in the color version was amplified here, and that is always a good thing!

I shot some other compositions here, but none of them really turned out all that great.  While I was thinking that I had a few good shots, I was pretty much just trying to salvage the day.  Granted, the hike was wonderful and something that I was desperately needing.  Of course, I was really wanting to make it worth my while bringing this 30LB bag with me.  I knew I wasn't capturing the images that I had set out to get, but I figured the more I tried, the more chances I would have to get a few really good images.  It just wasn't going to be here at this section of Cedar Rock.

I hiked back to the main trail, and continued on to Blackjack Ridge.  I don't think that I have ever been on this trail before, and I was excited to see what was to be seen.  Well, I now know why I haven't been on this trail before.  There was actually very little to see in terms of photography.  There were no overlooks, or breaks in the trees where I could shoot the face of Stone Mountain.  The trail was really nice though, and was mostly downhill.  At least until I hit the valley.  Then it was a steady climb back up again.  I kept my eyes out for photo ops along the way as it wasn't looking like I was going to get anything out in the open to shoot.

Find Your Grip
There are times that even though Toni isn't with me that I hear her talking to me.  This was one of those times.  When I passed by this one particular tree with a single exposed root, wrapped around a rock, I knew it was going to be something that she would like.  I pulled the camera back out, and kept the 70-200mm lens fitted, but I added an intensifying polarizer to remove the glare from the leaves and bark.  I started out with a simple horizontal shot that took advantage of the three tree trunks.  In case you didn't know, three is the magic number in photography.  If you can group things in threes, then there will be more visual balance.  Shooting at a relatively wide aperture (f/5.6), I was able to show depth in this image by throwing the background out of focus.  That also helped in keeping the main attention on the tree root, and the deep green leaves right beside of it.

Getting a Leg Up
Not wanting to stop working on this subject, I decided to try some more compositions.  Of course, a vertical orientation was a given to emphasize the tall and narrow aspects of this one tree.  I flipped the camera on its side and there it was.  An overwhelmingly simple composition that highlighted all the elements that I wanted.  I even lucked out that there was a large rock behind the leaves which helped to give them some visual pop.  This was a really cool shot, and one that I would have missed had I not opted to go down this rather long section of trail.  

I continued until I got to the next intersection that brought me to the other end of the Cedar Rock trail.  Having had some good luck with Cedar about an hour ago, and wanting to go back to Wolf Rock, I decided to head back up the trail that I had started a while ago.  My other option would have kept me in the low lands of the park, and the sun was causing too many issues for that to be a good idea for much longer.

The Granite Slopes
When I first stepped onto Cedar Rock slightly off of the trail, I found a fallen tree limb next to a little patch of vegetation.  In the distance was one of the balds.  The clouds were actually coming toward me, and there was a good deal of blue in the sky.  This was going to be my chance for a long exposure shot!  I fitted my 16-35mm lens with the Lee filter holder.  I composed my image, and calculated the exposure before adding my 10-Stop ND filter.  I then added a 2-Stop ND Grad to control the sky.  I was able to shoot at f/18 for 25 seconds at 100ISO, which was pretty good considering the amount of sunshine I was dealing with.  As I did before, I used my boonie hat to shield the lens since I couldn't fit a hood on it, and I used my hand to block the light through the viewfinder.  I tried about 4 exposures until I got the one I wanted with the clouds just so.  Well, at least I was working on my long exposures once again.  This is a fun little technique!

I kept my rig built as it was, and started looking for other possible compositions.  I moved up towards where the actual trail was and was pleased to find a nice island of vegetation, including a reddish plant. As I moved closer, I could see that Stone Mountain was positioned in a way that I could use it as a background for this little island.  My 16-35mm lens was just perfect to make this image work, so I left it attached.  The wind was a little gusty here, and with the foreground consisting of small bushes, I didn't want to risk blurring the foreground with a long exposure.  I stripped off the 10-Stop filter and chose to set the shot up with no filters.  Since there was blue in the sky, I was worried that a polarizer would cause banding at such a wide focal length.

Precarious Dwelling
After I shot a few test shots, I decided that I needed to fit an ND Grad filter to control the sky a little bit. I went with a 2-Stop Grad and found that the exposure was quite nice with that filter...that was until the sun started to peak through the clouds.  The surface immediately lit up, and caused the exposure to look funny with the sky much darker than the foreground.  I pulled the filter off really quick, and dialed in a new exposure. Yep, that was what I was looking for!  The histogram showed me that everything was looking good and nothing was getting clipped.  About as quickly as the sun hit, it was covered up once again.  But I was quick enough that I captured that moment.

I wondered what was on the other side of the trees, and hoped that it was another chance to get a nice view of Stone Mountain.  I left everything built on the camera and just walked down the little trail.  Once I cleared the trees, I was very happy with what I saw.  There was Stone Mountain, just as clear as the day is long.  I've been here before, and had a very hard time getting a composition since there isn't much in the way of a foreground.  I started to hunt something...anything to put in front of the camera to avoid the post card shot.  I wanted to show depth, and that was going to be kind of difficult.  The answer came in the form of some weird luck.  Just under the shade of the trees, I found a patch of moss that was growing on the stone surface.  Along with the shadows, I figured that I had the foreground that I was after.  I just needed to work on a composition.  I knew that I wanted to use my 16-35mm lens which was still on the camera.  I started out shooting with no filters, and found the image a little blah.

Nothing but Time
What this image needed was some excitement!  There were no dramatic leading lines that would draw the viewer into the picture, so I had to come up with something else.  Well, I did still have my 10-Stop ND in my pocket, so I figured I might as well give that a try.  I wasn't looking at anything up close that would be bothered by the wind, and the clouds were moving at a nice clip.  With the filter attached, my shutter speeds slowed to 30 seconds at f/20, 100ISO.  I fired off about half a dozen frames with this composition until I could get the clouds to look like I wanted them to.  The textures here are really the best part of the story.  There is the soft dreamy look of the clouds, and the rather crisp rocky surface in the foreground.  The trees add another texture to the mix as well.

Nothing but Time in B&W
With all that texture, and the range in light to dark, this one was a natural for a monochrome conversion.  As with the other conversion, I went into Photoshop and tweaked the image until I was happy with the black and white version.  I was able to really emphasize the textures and light in this picture.  I'm still thinking that I like the color version better, but both make me very happy and they both stand on their own merits as images.  I'll always consider that a success!

I was really starting to enjoy Cedar Rock.  I was finding all sorts of little treasures up here.  I kept searching for other compositions, but was finding myself running out of dramatic options.  I had ended up back at the section where I had been earlier in the day.  There was still some very nice lighting, and the clouds were much better now.  I started to set up to reshoot some of the compositions I had done earlier and then thought I didn't want to do that.  I was looking at a large area with lots of little points of interest, but nothing that really jumped out independent from the others.  Could this be?  Was this going to be my chance to do a panorama?  I had a very wide area that I had never captured before, and the lighting was relatively uniform.  Yeah, I might as well give it a try.

I swapped out my wide angle lens for my 70-200mm.  Yeah, I know this seems a little counterproductive to take an ultra wide view with a long lens.  There is actually a method to my madness though.  If I had shot with my wide angle, I would have had a lot of perspective distortion to deal with.  It isn't an issue with a single shot, but when I am stitching several together, it causes problems...or so I've read.  Using my lens at 70mm, I wasn't going to have that issue to deal with.  The issue that I had was getting enough height to the image.  To deal with that, I flipped the camera on its side, and shot portrait orientation.

Cedar Rock
I set the tripod up as level as I could make it using the spirit level.  I then did a few mock sweeps of the camera to make sure that it was going to be level through the entire sweep, left to right.  I also used this time to pick my proper exposure for the average lighting of the image.  I picked out my edges, and set my focus to about a third of the way into the image.  I then started making my exposures...nine of them to be correct.  I wasn't sure how this was going to work out since looking at the image reviews showed individual pictures that had no real composition to them.  It wasn't until I got home and stitched the images together that I saw the final result.  What you see here is an image that is 577mb in size, and can be printed as a huge image.  I'm happy with my first attempt at a panorama, especially after thinking that today wasn't going to be the day for it.

With the pano done, I had had gotten all of the goody out of Cedar Rock.  There was nothing left that excited me with the current conditions.  I packed up the camera and walked down the steep slope, back to the trail.  When I got to the bottom, I happened to look over at the old wooden stage that has been falling in for some time now.  There was a lot of interesting trees in the area to the side of it. With the clouds coming in pretty thick now, I thought that I had the chance to do some woodland shots before going back to Wolf Rock.  As I was working my way off of the trail, I saw an old chimney that I had forgotten was there.  The way that the light was, I knew I had to shoot this.  I pulled the camera back out again, and left the 70-200mm lens on.  I added an intensifying polarizer before getting low to the ground.  I chose a position that would allow me to frame the fireplace between two trees with the branches providing the upper frame for the image.

I just loved the warm tones of the bricks and stone used to make this fireplace.  The surrounding greenery, and pale tree trunk really made the stonework pop.  For something so simple, I was really excited about how it was looking in the LCD when I reviewed it.  It was really happy with it when I got it home and saw it on the big computer monitor.  This image just simply....works.

Wrinkled and Spiked
Like I said, it was the fallen trees that drew me off of the trail, and I wasn't going to leave until I had given them a chance as well.  Although, I have to admit, after the fireplace, I wasn't all that excited about the trees anymore.  There was one that caught my eye though.  I went over to it, and decided that I really liked the textures of the bark, and there was a little bush growing right to the side of it which provided a great contrasting element.  I left the camera as it was with the long lens and polarizer fitted.  I shot it first in horizontal orientation thinking that captured the flow the best.  I liked the shot, but it was missing a certain intimate quality that I thought this called for.  I flipped the camera on its side...

Old and New
That was what I was looking for!  I had all the textures I needed with the two subjects, and there was enough color there to really make both elements pop.  This was another one of those that I heard Toni talking in my head.  It wasn't one that I would necessarily normally have shot, but I was really happy with the outcome.  So happy, in fact, that I saw no need to shoot any of the other trees out there because they wouldn't have turned out nearly as good as this one.  It was time to pack the camera up, and head out to Wolf Rock.

It didn't take me long to get there, and when I did, I was really surprised to see so many hikers out there.  I had only passed a handful of other hikers on the trails up to this point.  Now I was looking at easily 25-40 people just on the first section of Wolf Rock.  They were loud, and spread all over.  I looked for some workable compositions, but honestly, all the noise was killing my creative mood. It was time to hit the road to home.  That was probably for the best since it was now over 80 degrees, and I was starting to get very hot in my long pants.  That should not have been a concern in mid February!

I had been in the park for about five hours.  In that time, I had shot 119 frames, used all three of my lenses, and used four of my filters.  I had done my long exposure shots as well as my first panorama.  Despite the lackluster start to the day, Stone Mountain didn't let me down today.  This is quickly becoming my favorite place to shoot, as every time I come here, I leave with a camera full of images to process.

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